Starting a freelance business is hard. There are no if's, and's, or but's about it.
Along the way you will eventually stumble and full - I sure as heck did! - but each of this small failures are vitally important to your ultimate and long term success.
That's why I'd like to share with you some of my own failures and struggles, because, let’s face it, the picture hasn’t been so rosy this whole time. Seriously, it got really bad there for a while. But maybe you’ll read this and feel more prepared to avoid these same issues.
In the weeks prior to the official start of my business, I was at the receiving end of a deluge of doubts from friends and family. I felt an increasingly added pressure to not fail because if I did, I’d be proving everyone right.
My family would keep asking me, “How’s business going” and I would just keep saying “Yea, it’s going great.”
But for a time there, it really wasn’t. It was actually going really bad. Like a flash bulb, I started out really strong, barreling through a couple of months with consistent leads and lots of income. In that time, with no experience to guide my actions and an inflated ego from early successes, I failed to think ahead and didn't secure new prospects.
When my first several projects dried up, so did my bank account. And I had nothing new in the pipe line. For nearly two months I put every dime I spent, including rent, on my credit card and racked up several thousand in debt. Which, by the way, is pretty much the worst financial advice in the world, and you should seriously, never, ever, ever do that.
The isolation and shame that I felt damaged my confidence and my ability to succeed. Once eager to get up and start work in the morning, I became despondent cause I had nothing to do and was overwhelmed with anxiety.
I slept all morning. I watched TV all night. I didn’t do any work - or do anything to get more work - because I was so ashamed over my failures. I was also completely isolated in that shame.
You should always have a mentor you can talk to. This person must be a trusted confidant who truly understands what you’re doing, and ideally who’s been there themselves. By talking through your worry and despair with a capable mentor you will avoid being consumed by your inevitable failures and instead find ways to power through them.
This really was, in effect, my biggest problem. Like I said, my first several clients came easily and quickly. I worked eagerly and happily through their projects, assuming that more would just keep coming in.
But I was resting high on my laurels during this time, thinking I’d made it, all the while oblivious to the very obvious lesson I should have been learning.
Any seasoned freelancer will tell you this, but it is vitally important to remember that projects will always drag out longer than you think, and your final payment will likely arrive much later than that.
For an average full website package, I now exercise caution and build in a three month lag time between being hired and getting my final payment. I also manage my cash flow by taking large deposits, and earning money through passive income. I've also drastically increased my prices.
If you're not doing those things though, it's easy to see how quickly your success can turn into what feels like game-ending failure if you aren’t continuously being hired for new projects.
You should never stop scoping clients. There are ways to automate this process, and if you're interested in learning more about them then I totally recommend grabbing my checklist that covers the Five Truths of Top Level Freelancers.
The checklist is pretty darn comprehensive and should get your gears turning. You can get that here >>
I advocate that you do something to seek out a new job every day. Make a new connection, put out an advertisement, work on your portfolio, follow up with old clients, etc.
Every single day you should be doing something to find new work, and by doing that you will soon find yourself in the awesome position of having clients come to you.
While not having any clients is a problem, more so is having them and not doing any work for them. In my experience, work avoidance is a result of job-related anxiety, depressed mood, or laziness stemming from a serious disinterest in your work.
Regardless of its source, let me be clear, procrastination will kill you. The single greatest threat to any business is complacency and lack of effort. You’ve been forewarned. I tell you this out of experience. Don’t be me. DON’T BE ME.
When we're anxious to receive feedback, or anxious because we don’t know how to complete a task, we have a tendency to avoid the source of our anxiety. When this happens, the only way to appropriately deal with it is to tackle whatever is making you nervous head on. Usually it’s not as bad as it seems, and once you’ve dealt with the issue - or at least acknowledged it - the emotional block is cleared and you can get back to work.
On days when I'm truly feeling insecure, unmotivated or depressed I find myself unable to accomplish anything. On a day like this, it's vitally important that you pay attention to your mental health and take a little time to lift your spirits.
Of course, if you’re really feeling depressed or your negative feelings are persistent you should talk with someone. Freelance isolation and depression is a real thing - pay attention to your feelings, and always seek help if you think something is wrong.
Finally, sometimes we avoid work because we don’t like what we’re tasked to do - the work is boring, or tedious, or generally unpleasant (like, I would rather pull my fingernails out one by one then send out marketing emails on behalf of a client).
It’s very important for your career success and overall well-being to identify this kind of work as soon as you can and make sure you never take on those kind of projects again.
There is plenty of work to be had out there and you’re not doing anyone - neither you, nor the client - any favors by agreeing to do work you just don’t like to do. You won’t do as well as you could, and the client will be able to tell that your heart isn’t in it.
One of the best cures for procrastination is getting the eff out of your house. Pick up your laptop, drag your butt to a coffee shop, and then read this post all about how to overcome procrastination: How to Conquer the Evil Procrastination Troll
I know that this is something we all struggle with as new freelancers. I talk a lot about this in my upcoming course "Be a Freelance VIP". I also go over some nitty gritty details about it in that killer checklist I mentioned earlier: the Five Truths of Top Level Freelancers Checklist. Grab it here >>
A combination of not knowing what’s appropriate to charge, not knowing what top level freelancers are charging, and not believing you could be a top level freelancer all lead to you not charging enough.
Like procrastination, undercharging is not your friend. Undercharging makes you appear to be worth less than you are. Undercharging will keep you trapped in a cycle of crappy clients and crappy jobs, and you’ll be working more than you should to barely make ends meet.
When you undercharge you don’t give yourself the ability to save money or pay down debts. You put yourself in a risky financial situation, and if you lose a client, you won’t have enough to support yourself.
Charge a premium rate for premium work, and don’t be afraid to double or triple your rate. You may get fewer clients this way but they will be higher quality and more invested in you and the work. They will also refer you to higher quality clients.
I’m a shy person. I hide, happily, behind my computer screen most of the time. Showing myself, sharing what I’m doing, and self promotion all seriously terrify me. I avoid it.
I shy away from meeting new people, even ones whose insights or connections could help me. I avoid doing anything that involves video, even though live streaming and webinars are one of the TOP ways to grow your audience and get exposure because… I don’t even know!
Am I afraid of my own face? Of people seeing my face? Of people connecting my face to my work and thinking I’m stupid and then posting my face on a billboard to make fun of me?
I’ve let fear hold me back from taking steps that could have drastically improved my business countless times. And this is the one on this list I’m still working on each and every day.
One of the best strategies I've found to overcome the things I'm afraid of is to find a partner to tackle them with. For example, webinars are a lot less scary when there is someone else there to help you if you falter.
Working through anxiety-inducing situations with a partner always makes things easier. And as you tackle the tough stuff with a pal by your friend, you’ll not only be gaining a trusted partner and advocate but you’ll be getting the practice and experience you need to do those things on your own, and then eventually share your wisdom with others.
Oh the mighty contract! How we live and die by them.
One of my most egregious freelancing mistakes was to continuously use a contract that states final payment will occur when the project is over, but sets no specification about what “over” means i.e. I don’t get paid for 40 years.
I could go on for ages about all the things you need to include in your contract, but one of the most vital things is that you include an exit strategy, and specify what “project close” means.
What’s an exit strategy? One that specifies that either party can cut ties at any time, and if that happens then you, the freelancer, will be paid for what you’ve accomplished up to that time. This is why it's good to use milestone payments, and don't start working on the next phase of a project until you're paid for the previous.
As for “project close”, you should specify when your involvement with the project actually ends (i.e. when you will get paid what’s left after your deposit). A good rule of thumb is specify that when you have completed the items outlined in the scope of work and transferred the necessary documents, your involvement is over and you should be paid.
I learned the hard way that when you’re building a new site for a client, a lot of times that client won’t think the project is done until their domain is transferred and they are live. Even if you completed their code base two months earlier and they’ve been held up for any myriad of reasons. You’re done when the code is done, unless your scope of work included launching help (charge extra for that!).
This is, I suppose, just another form of procrastination, but unlike it’s brethren laziness, this masquerades itself as productivity. Yes, I am working! I am looking to see how many people love me on twelve different social media accounts and Google Analytics and I'm writing emails and creating spreadhseets and whoa, I’m working really hard!
You’re not. This isn’t working. This is mindless distraction. Taking a break every few moments to refresh your Twitter notifications feed, or to stop what you’re doing to try and glean a new insight from Google Analytics, or to check your email is not productivity.
This is the opposite of productivity, and it's a slow death. Set realistic goals for each day - at least one task you wish to accomplish. When you're working, close everything not pertaining to that task. If what you’re doing isn’t going to bring value to someone else or propel your business forward, don’t do it. Definitely don’t do it constantly.
So there you have my biggest failures as a freelancer. What are yours? Let me know in the comments! Also, don't forget to grab The Five Truths of Top Level Freelancers Checklist right here >>